They were places of wretchedness and death. Like poisonous weeds, they sprouted and multiplied, blighting a nation’s character. Their nourishment had been men, tens of thousands of condemned souls. They possessed damnable names—Johnson’s Island, Camp Douglas, Elmira, Belle Isle, Salisbury and Andersonville. Their legacy might have been different except for the intransigence of two warring governments.
The belligerent rights of Confederates engaged in a domestic rebellion became an issue early in the conflict. When the Union administration accepted enemy privateers as prisoners of war, not as pirates, the policy accorded similar status to other captured Southerners. During the war’s initial months, the opposing sides settled on an informal arrangement for the parole and exchange of captive soldiers. Although prisoners were swapped, difficulties plagued the project. In December 1861, the U.S. Congress passed resolutions favoring negotiations for an exchange agreement with the Confederacy.
Discussions began two months later, broke down, and then resumed. It was not until July 22, 1862, that Union Maj. Gen. John Dix and Confederate Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill signed a formal agreement. Under the terms of the cartel, the exchange of prisoners was to be conducted between the armies, not the governments. One Union captive was to be exchanged for one Confederate prisoner.
The agreement provided a scale weighted according to individual rank. An army commander, for example, was worth 60 privates in an exchange, while a lieutenant counted for four privates. If a soldier was paroled after his capture, he had to agree not to take up arms until he was exchanged.
A designated commissioner of prisoner exchange from each side oversaw the cartel. The Confederates appointed Colonel Robert Ould to the duty; the Union Colonel William H. Ludlow. In the East, boats bearing white flags carried prisoners to City Point, Va., where agents recorded names and counted men. In the West, Vicksburg, Miss., served as the point of exchange. Despite the increase in captives from engagements, prisons began emptying under the Cox–Hill agreement.
In the spring of 1863, however, the program ended over the issue of African-American soldiers and their white officers. In February the U.S. War Department had restricted the issuance of paroles without informing its counterpart in Richmond. On May 1 the Confederate Congress enacted a measure providing that captured officers of black troops should be tried in court for inciting slave rebellion, and if convicted, should be executed. The law also specified that uniformed African-American prisoners should be delivered to authorities in the states in which they were taken for possible enslavement regardless of their prewar status. Three weeks later the Union War Department halted the parole and exchange of officers.
Although limited informal exchanges continued, the Confederate policy on blacks and their officers effectively shut down the program. The battles of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Chickamauga and Chattanooga brought a flood of men into prisons. When Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Miss., surrendered to Union forces, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant paroled the garrisons— more than 30,000 troops. The Confederate War Department, alleging irregularities in the paroles, declared the Vicksburg and Port Hudson captives as exchanged and returned them into service.
The opposing governments undertook negotiations to resolve the differences. President Abraham Lincoln, whose Emancipation Proclamation allowed for the recruitment of freedmen, refused to alter the policy unless the Confederates treated blacks and whites equally in any arrangement. President Jefferson Davis’ administration, however, opposed such an agreement. As conditions worsened in prisons during 1864, public anger, particularly in the North, mounted over the issue. The sight of some emaciated former prisoners returning home only fueled the uproar.
Eventually the Lincoln administration handed the problem to Ulysses Grant, the general-in-chief. Grant had written earlier: “It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man we hold, when released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated.” It had rankled Grant that at Chattanooga he had to fight prisoners who had been captured at Vicksburg.
Finally, in February 1865, the Confederate government, in dire need of men, consented to treat whites and blacks equally in an exchange. Grant agreed to the release of 3,000 prisoners a week, on a man-to-man basis, until all captives had been freed. Exchanges resumed until the war’s end in April, when all prisoners headed homeward.
In all, perhaps as many as 60,000 Northerners and Southerners perished in prison camps. That tragic cost resulted in part from adherence to beliefs embedded deeply in the country’s past.
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.